Waterloo Region police say they’ll be ready for pot legalization

Taken from: The Record

WATERLOO REGION — Waterloo Region’s chief of police says “society has spoken” and his officers will be ready for the legalization of recreational marijuana by next summer.

But Waterloo Regional Police Chief Bryan Larkin still has concerns about the challenges to police trying to catch people who toke and drive — and keep an eye on all the potential “home farmers” who might want to grow their own marijuana plants.

The proposed legislation, revealed Thursday by the Trudeau government, is a massive overhaul of Canada’s drug laws that will make it legal for those aged 18 and older to grow, buy and use recreational marijuana.

Chief Larkin says legalization will switch the police’s focus to organized crime and the black market that traffics marijuana, but it still presents some hurdles to officers who have to enforce the new rules among ordinary citizens.

One of his biggest worries in the proposed legislation is the part that would allow Canadians to grow up to four plants for their own use. Personal plants are hard to control — and hard to keep out of the hands of youth, he said.

“We have concerns about that, because how do you regulate that, how do you monitor that, how do you prescribe what’s in it? And does that also provide an opportunity for the black market, for youth?” Chief Larkin said.

“I’m hoping, like making your own beer and wine at home, that it’s not that good and you just go to the store to buy it.”

There also will be new costs to police as the law changes, he said. The devices officers will use to detect drug-impaired drivers costs about $4,000 each, and will require specialized training, too — things that put a squeeze on resources.

And it all needs to be done in little over a year, given Ottawa’s tight timeline.

“That’s a significant challenge to the budget,” he said. “Some of those pieces are worrisome, some of those are concerning … but none of it is insurmountable.”

Kitchener-Conestoga MP Harold Albrecht, meanwhile, said the Liberals are rushing ahead with legalization without fully considering the consequences for Canadians, whether it’s protecting people from impaired drivers or keeping children safe.

“My biggest concern is for the safety of our kids and youth,” said Albrecht, with the caveat that he had only time to quickly skim the 120-page document before being asked to comment.

“I’m not in favour of this in any shape or from. I don’t know any parents who are trying to make recreational drugs more available. To me, this is sending the message that marijuana use is normal.”

The Conservative member of Parliament worries all the costs of enforcing the new marijuana laws, from Canadians growing their own plants to getting behind the wheel, will be passed onto municipalities.

“How are we going to monitor all that? What kind of extra police services will be needed to hire to monitor that? My concern is the costs will be out of proportion,” Albrecht said.

The Liberals are proposing changes to the Criminal Code to punish anyone who would provide marijuana to youth or sell the product outside the new legal regime — including maximum penalties of 14 years in jail to anyone who sells or gives cannabis to a youth.

The legislation also proposes penalties of up to three years in jail, or fines of $5-million, to anyone who creates cannabis products that are geared toward youth.

Bardish Chagger, the Liberal House Leader and Waterloo’s MP, said legalization is actually about protecting youth.

“We know that the current system is failing our kids, that’s why it’s important to legalize, strictly control and regulate access to marijuana to keep it out of the hands of our children, and keep profits out of the pockets of organized crime,” she said.

“The reality is, in many cases it’s easier for our kids to buy cannabis than cigarettes.”

The Liberals have also promised a public education campaign about the dangers of early and prolonged marijuana use, its ability to impair drivers’ judgment, and fund more research into the health impacts of marijuana use.

Many of the decisions around how and where marijuana will be sold, where it can be consumed, will be left up to the provinces. There are many unanswered questions about what legalization will look like.

However it’s sold, taxes on marijuana should be kept low to compete with cheaper black market pot, says Anindya Sen, a professor of economics at the University of Waterloo.

Government-owned liquor outlets, such as the LCBO, should stay out of the business of selling marijuana, because they’ll only add unnecessary new costs and bureaucracy for taxpayers, he said. Ontario should look to the model of Colorado, which has a network of high-end, privately owned stores that sell marijuana, Sen said.

“If the aim is to eliminate the black market, prices can’t be high. What should be paramount is public health, rather than generating tax revenue,” said Sen, who released a study on legalization through the C.D. Howe Institute.

“But I would have liked a bit more direction from government on how people are going to consume it. Will it just be allowed in private residences, or will be allowed in cannabis cafes? There are arguments for and against that.”

Kitchener-based medical marijuana advocate Pete Thurley doesn’t think the federal government is rushing ahead. Instead, he wishes the proposed legislation focused less on a “tough on crime” approach and more on the therapeutic benefits of the drug.

The tens of thousands of Canadians who are medical cannabis users still don’t have answers around what legalization will mean for access and affordability of cannabis, he said. Right now, medical cannabis can only legally be bought by a mail-order system through a licensed producer.

Thurley has questions about what taxes medicinal users might pay to fill their prescriptions, and if the provinces will allow the convenience of storefront dispensaries.

“It’s a step forward,” he said. “But the feds really downloaded most of the important operational details to the provinces. And no changes were made to the medical regime. It’s as if medical marijuana didn’t even exist.”

The federal government also says it wants to ensure there are enough licensed producers in the country to meet demand once legalization arrives. That means the 42 companies that already have authorization from Health Canada to produce medical marijuana — including Kitchener’s James E. Wagner Cultivation — will have a leg up on the competition.